How to Succeed at Mediation: Part 1 – Strategic Silence

How to Succeed at Mediation

Part 1 -- Strategic Silence

Silence is Power

Silence is a powerful technique utilized by practitioners across a variety of professions.  Family mediators, psychotherapists, teachers and even sports announcers utilize silence strategically to create an intended effect.  You can similarly use silence during family mediation to make it more likely that you reach a settlement and achieve a deal that you consider fair and reasonable.

Silence is Not Consent

Silence is sometimes misunderstood as acceptance.  Someone who is silent might be perceived as a blank slate who absorbs whatever is thrown their way.  If one person in a family mediation is doing all the talking and fills the room with their voice and their narrative in an attempt to get their own way, doesn’t it mean you accept what they are saying if you don’t respond?

Nope. Read on.

3 Types of Silence

Stoic Silence

A stoic form of silence is the use of self-discipline to refuse to react to whatever is being said or done.  Sometimes tuning someone out is the best response.  Whether the other person is trying to get a reaction out of you, or just does not have the self control to listen or to speak more productively, you always have the right to choose to respond with silence.

You take your mediation-partner as you find them.  It would be great if they had the self-control to listen and speak respectfully.  But if changing the other person were an option, you might not be getting a divorce altogether!  You might be more likely to reach the settlement agreement you want by ignoring the other person.

Active Silence

A more active form of silence might be used to gather information that helps you down the road.  You might not agree with what is being said, but you’re not ignoring it either.  If you allow the outflow to continue unimpeded, they might become more receptive to listening to other people once they got their view point “out there” as they felt so compelled to do.  They might even say something that works against themselves and weakens their bargaining position.  Your active silence may result in making it more likely that your proposals are ultimately accepted.

Strategic Silence

The most active form of silence is one that “listens through” what the other person is saying.  It is a method o fathering information that identifies, categorizes, and understands not only the words being said, but the intent and the “real reason” behind them.

Through active silence, you could identify when venting about you reveals how the other person views themselves.  Through an angry tone, you might identify fear and vulnerability about a particular issue you have to mediate. Once you know which issues are most important to the other person, you can create a proposal that becomes more likely to be accepted.  Its not about using their words against them per se, but knowing where to focus when you want to say something convincing.

Silence is Not Easy

It is not within everybody’s skill set.  Silence is a powerful tool, and not everyone is physically or emotionally capable of cultivating it.  It might take practice over time to be able to participate in an emotionally loaded negotiation about important issues while someone else is saying something you do not agree with.  If this is something you can gain some control over, it can become a useful strategy in family mediation which increases your chances of reaching the agreement you want to reach.

Our culture currently embraces the mindset that everything needs a reaction.  Every perceived slight, differing opinion, or obnoxious comment has to be responded to with higher intensity.  You can anticipate feeling the pressure to respond just like someone would do on social media.  But these social communications are not aimed at generating agreement on anything.  They might feel good in the short term, but conflict only leads to more conflict, and that is what you are in mediation to try to avoid.  This practitioner tip is that strategic silence does a better job of getting the result you want.

Saving face, and the mediator’s presence.  A principle of physics is that you can never really observe something without changing it.  Although many mediators would prefer to merely observe a conversation, and strategically use silence themselves to facilitate the discussion, the fact is the mediator’s presence changes the mediation dynamics in significant ways.  Often times when “dirty laundry” is aired, people get a little embarrassed (even though we have heard worse before) and they become inclined to “explain”.

While it is understandable that you don’t want the mediator to get the wrong idea, they are not really being persuaded one way or another by the other person’s accusations.  As a trained neutral, we will be using strategic silence ourselves: filtering out the irrelevant information, identifying where the assertions are really coming from, and thinking hard about how to recalibrate the discussion onto a path that generates an agreement.  For both the client and the mediator, this is an opportunity for strategic silence.

Being a “counter-puncher” is not a good thing.  When someone makes a verbal attack, the instinct to attack in self-defense is powerful and innate.  In mediation, as in many situations, there is no meaningful difference between “defending yourself” and “attacking first”.  Both perpetuate a cycle that works against each of you.

Of course there isn’t anything “fair” about having to be the adult in the room while the other person says whatever they feel.  But there is power in a strategic silence which breaks the cycle.  The attacking words are the giving away of power, while the silence is receiving information that can be used to get results.  You achieve control over the situation when you have the ability to listen rather than respond.

I promise the mediator is strategically listening.  How do you know the mediator is “using strategic silence” instead of “actively daydreaming”?  If they are silent for long, you might wonder if they got bored and fell asleep while you were talking, or worse, got persuaded by what the other person was saying.

This is one of the reasons that effective mediation is so hard to quantify — it might look like the mediator is just sitting there.  But we are trained to be neutral, which means we take everything with a grain of salt.  We remember that we are ultimately not decision-makers in your mediation, so convincing of anything is of little benefit to you.  We also handle many divorce cases, while clients personally usually only go through one or a few.  So we are used to the emotions and the accusations, the impulse-driven communications and the sometimes-winding path a discussion can take on its way towards a resolution.  Much of that process is internal, but you can talk about it with the mediator at an appropriate time.


Silence is not a cure-all and it is not right for every situation.  Certainly there is a time to speak up, but there are many other times where it can be advantageous to remain silent.  It is a strategy, not a “mechanism of justice”.

Of course silence does not last forever either.  Each person must eventually get the opportunity to speak in any family mediation, and the “air time” each person receives is usually approximately equal.  Participants would benefit from keeping in mind that they have the right and the option to use silence wherever and however they see fit.

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